Archive for September, 2011

Florida's Welfare Drug Testing Law Challenged, Ruling on Hold

by Kristen Pavón

With serious fourth amendment concerns surrounding Florida’s law requiring drug testing for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) applicants, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, on behalf of a Navy veteran, challenged the law earlier this month.

Yesterday, a federal judge held off on ruling whether to grant an injunction against the Department of Children and Families, the agency charged with performing the drug testing. For now, the law still stands.

The 35-year-old Navy veteran and father of a 4-year-old son, applied to Florida’s TANF this year. “He met all of the program’s eligibility requirements but was denied assistance after he refused to take the drug test as required by a law that took effect in July. He then sued the department, DCF.”

The Florida American Civil Liberties Union contends Lebron (the plaintiff) and other welfare applicants are being forced to forfeit their constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure by submitting to the drug testing. They argued that the program has been in existence since 1996 and never required the test before.

A similar state law in Michigan requiring drug testing for welfare applicants was struck down in 2003. The federal appellate court that issued that ruling said it violated citizens’ constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

ACLU attorney Maria Kayanan – Lebron’s lead counsel – told the judge in the Orlando courtroom Monday that the Florida law creates a “Fourth-Amendment-free zone.”

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. Read the rest of the story at the Miami Herald.

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Job o' the Day: Address Wrongful Convictions with the Innocence Project in NY

The Innocence Project is a nonprofit pro bono legal clinic founded in 1992 by Prof. Barry Scheck and civil rights lawyer Peter Neufeld at the Cardozo School of Law/Yeshiva University. Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to avoid future injustice.

The Innocence Project has established the position of Joseph Flom Special Counsel, a new senior-level staff position that will significantly increase the clinic’s capacity to address the leading causes of wrongful convictions through strategic litigation. This is a new capacity being developed at the Innocence Project. We are seeking candidates with established litigation and leadership skills, necessary for structuring and implementing our strategic litigation reform work.

The Joseph Flom Special Counsel will initially identify and litigate cases.  In the course of the first four years, the Special Counsel will develop and lead a small cadre of strategic litigators that will enable the Innocence Project to increase its ability to free the innocent and reform the criminal justice system.

In the first two years, the strategic litigation will focus on supporting the organization’s efforts to reform forensic sciences to make them more scientific.  Over time, the Special Counsel will evolve the organization’s capacity to shape strategic litigation efforts on the leading causes of wrongful conviction, including eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, and incentivized witness testimony.

The Innocence Project’s strategic litigation will serve three primary purposes:  1)  to support legislative and policy reform efforts; 2) to change the ways that courts consider evidence that has historically brought about wrongful convictions; and 3) to provide support to litigators across the country who litigate post-conviction claims of innocence in strategically chosen cases.

If you’re interested in working with the Innocence Project to advance reform in criminal justice policies, find out how to apply at PSLawNet!

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Does Email Sometimes Seem Like Your Enemy? Consider the "Email Charter"

By: Steve Grumm

I came across a good Washington Post piece about how email can exert unwarranted control over our workday (and our mindset) by distracting us and sidetracking our planned work tasks.  The author, Chris Anderson, writes about beginning his day by reading three emails, the subjects of which, while hardly spam, were also hardly on his radar screen when he logged in:

These e-mails have nothing in common — except for the fact that none of their issues had been on my agenda that morning. I don’t even know one of the senders. But although it took only a few minutes to read these notes, I suddenly feel pressure to develop coherent thoughts on complex questions regarding someone else’s business enterprise, office politics and world peace.

It’s barely 8 a.m., and I’m already drowning in e-mail. In the blink of an eye, my day’s priorities have been commandeered. And more missives keep pouring in, including tweets, Google Plus notifications, Facebook status updates and instant messages. It’s essentially a fire hose of information all day long….

This rings true to me.  And I have just enough of a pleaser living inside me that I can too easily drop a time-sensitive, involved project to think ten minutes about a completely random email inquiry from someone I haven’t spoken with in months.

Anderson’s solution: we should consider the principles of the Email Charter – 10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral.  Give it  a read…

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DHS Recommends Adherence to Enforcement Priorities, Transparency & Systematic Exercise of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Screening

by Kristen Pavón

In June, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano created a task force to address how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could improve the Secure Communities Program, its joint immigration initiative with federal immigration authorities and state and local law enforcement agencies.

Last week, DHS approved the task force’s findings and recommendations report. Many of the findings do not come as a surprise. Regardless, here are a few of the major findings:

1. There is a lot of confusion about the Secure Communities Program, including its goals, how it works and each agency’s role in the program, among those who are charged with enforcing it.

2. Minor offenders and non-criminals have been arrested and deported as a result of the Secure Communities Program, which reveals a disconnect between the articulated focus of the program (dangerous offenders and individuals who pose a national security threat) and the on-the-ground enforcement of it.

3. Current civil rights violations/abuse complaint procedure are inadequate.

The task force made various recommendations, some are specific but most are general. Here are a few of the highlights:

1. Reaffirm the enforcement hierarchy, which at the top includes individuals who post a national security threat or a threat to public safety.

2. Streamline policies and training for consistency in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, the understanding of the program and the enforcement of the program.

3. Monitor participating agencies more closely.

4. Ensure crime and  domestic violence victims are protected from unwarranted “immigration enforcement actions.”

5. Complaint processes should be meaningful, accessible and confidential.

Check out all the findings and recommendations here.


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Landing the Job: Rock that Phone Interview!

by Kristen Pavón

It’s pretty common for hiring managers to conduct initial screening interviews via phone these days because it saves on time and money for both the interviewer and interviewee.

This is your first opportunity to make a good impression and to get one step closer to landing the job. Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way.

1. Get serious.

Treat this interview as seriously as you would an in-person interview. You need to be just as prepared — research the organization, read some bios, do a google news search for the organization (more on this in a second).

2. Get dressed.

Sure, you’ll probably be in your house/apartment/room, but you’ll feel (and then act) the part if you get out of your PJs and into some business casual wear.

3. Find a Space.

Pick a place where you know your cell phone gets strong signal (unless you still have a landline phone) and create your space. Lay out your notepad, laptop, resume and anything else you might need for the interview. Also, make sure alarms are off, silence your phone once your interview has started, and the dogs are far, far away.

4. Get to Googling.

Don’t skip the Google search. Learn from my mistake. In an interview for a public service position, one of the interviewers asked me what news I had read about the agency recently. Although I had searched the website and read some press releases from the site, I did not google news search the agency!

5. Bring a Cheat Sheet.

Here’s one upside to having a phone interview — you can bring notes. Because a lot of employers like to ask questions based on your past experiences, I make notes on my resume about each of my previous positions. I note anyone I supervised, special projects that I handled that demonstrate leadership or any client work that was memorable. Also, I write the phonetic spelling of my interviewer — just in case.

How do you prepare for phone interviews?

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Job o' the Day: Chi-Town's BPI Looking for Public Interest Interns

Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), a Chicago-based public interest law and policy center that addresses compelling issues of social justice and quality of life in the Chicago region, is hiring interns for the summer of 2012.

BPI’s staff of lawyers and policy specialists works to increase the availability of affordable housing for working families, transform segregated public housing, improve Chicago’s public schools, and help restore open, honest, responsible, and accountable government in our state using a wide variety of approaches, including legal and policy research, advocacy, organizing, litigation and collaboration with non-profit, business, community and governmental organizations.
Interns work closely with our staff on important public interest projects in BPI’s program groups: affordable housing, public housing, public education, and political reform.

Interns receive excellent supervision and mentorship, the opportunity to contribute directly to solving pressing policy issues, and the chance to learn more about Chicago’s ever growing public interest community.

1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls are encouraged to apply. BPI is frequently able to offer summer funding assistance to legal interns through the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) program. PILI provides funding for law students to work at various public interest legal organizations in Chicago.

To apply or learn more about the position, see the listing at PSLawNet!

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Justice by Mathematics: Prosecutorial Leverage Stifling Access to Courts

by Kristen Pavón

Today, the NY Times featured an article detailing how tougher sentencing laws have provided prosecutors with greater discretion to “extract guilty pleas from defendants” through plea bargaining, the practice of which, in many states, has become coercive and led to a significant drop in felony trials nationwide.

Some experts say the process has become coercive in many state and federal jurisdictions, forcing defendants to weigh their options based on the relative risks of facing a judge and jury rather than simple matters of guilt or innocence. In effect, prosecutors are giving defendants more reasons to avoid having their day in court.

A Florida case is highlighted as a stark example of the harsh consequences of plea bargaining.

After Mr. Guthrie, 24, was arrested here last year, accused of beating his girlfriend and threatening her with a knife, the prosecutor offered him a deal for two years in prison plus probation.

Mr. Guthrie rejected that, and a later offer of five years, because he believed that he was not guilty, his lawyer said. But the prosecutor’s response was severe: he filed a more serious charge that would mean life imprisonment if Mr. Guthrie is convicted later this year.

Because of a state law that increased punishments for people who had recently been in prison, like Mr. Guthrie, the sentence would be mandatory. So what he could have resolved for a two-year term could keep him locked up for 50 years or more. . . .

Before new sentencing laws, the gap was narrower, and trials less risky, veteran lawyers here say. The first thing Denis deVlaming, a prominent Florida criminal defense lawyer, does with a new client is pull out a calculator to tally all the additional punishments the prosecutor can add to figure the likely sentence if the client is convicted at trial.

“They think I’m ready to charge them a fee, but I’m not,” he said. “I tell them in Florida, it’s justice by mathematics.”

No matter how strongly defendants believe they are innocent, he said, they could be taking dangerous risks by, for example, turning down a one-year plea bargain when the prosecutor threatens additional charges that carry a mandatory sentence 10 times as long.

This piece was a great reminder of how broad access to justice issues really are. Lately, our focus has been on access to courts and effective representation in civil legal matters. However, this article highlights that similar issues are present in the criminal arena as well.

Read the entire article here.

Any thoughts?

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Public Interest Employment Market Survey – Response Deadline Extended to Friday, 9/30

Hello, PSLawNet Blog readers.  Please spread the word far and wide among nonprofit and government law offices.  Our survey response deadline is extended to Friday, 9/30.  Here’s some more detail:

The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) is conducting a brief, anonymous survey of nonprofit and government public-interest law offices throughout the country about 1) recent law student and attorney hiring and 2) hiring expectations for the immediate future. We will use the data to produce a report about what the public interest employment market looks like now and how it may change in the near future.  NALP will release the report later this fall. The report will be made freely available online. The report will NOT identify any responding organizations by name. We hope the report will benefit the public interest legal community as well as law students and attorneys who are on public interest career paths.  Please participate in the brief, online survey by clicking here.  Please contact Steve Grumm with any questions:

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Wash. Post Interview with LSC President Jim Sandman on How LSC Will Move Forward as Funding Threats Loom

By: Steve Grumm

In a Post article/interview, LSC President Jim Sandman laid out four goals for LSC’s immediate future as it confronts likely cuts in its congressional appropriation.  The goals:

    1. Create an independent body to make fiscal operations more efficient;
    2. Focus on getting services to hard-to-reach communities;
    3. Prove legal aid is different;
    4. Seek alternative revenue sources.

All of these make sense in light of the sure-to-be-difficult appropriations battle which lies ahead, as well as the current climate in which so many people and families who are eligible for legal assistance can not access legal services due to resource shortages.  It’s noteworthy that another LSC initiative (which did not make it into this Post piece) involves a re-invigoration of efforts to marshal pro bono resources.  I’m hopeful that this conversation will not be confined to getting private lawyers (and law students) to handle more pro bono cases, but will also include broader discussion of the private bar’s role as a steward of the justice system at a time when more and more Americans are disconnected from courts and other legal channels. 

As to goal #3 above – proving that legal aid is different: what Mr. Sandman is getting at is that in the funding battle on Capitol Hill, LSC will need to make itself stand apart from other federal programs that face funding cuts:

“We need to make our case that legal aid is important and is a critical component of access to justice,” Sandman said. “We need to distinguish ourselves from other programs subject to cuts. Why are we different? Every program is getting reduced. In an environment like that, the burden is on us to explain why … access to justice is different from other types of programs funded by the government because it has to do with who we are as a country. Hard times test values. And they’re not all the same. The first line of the Constitution mentions establishing justice as a core purpose of the national government. The framers mentioned establishing justice before providing for the common defense or ensuring domestic tranquility.”

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Things That Make You Go Hmmm… Weird Legal Dish